Introduction to Satire

Being raised in a family of self-identified comedians, one of the phrases I heard growing up was “if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.” The idea that one should take a comedic approach to life’s darkest moments is one that I’ve carried with me all my life. There’s something about the shock value of approaching a difficult subject with humor and honesty that can make the most specific topic relatable and really make people laugh. So when I was contemplating how to approach writing about a past relationship, it only seemed natural to approach the more painful details using satire.
Satirical essays tend to be brief and to the point, with detailed headlines that encompass the writer’s point. While topics range from global events to everyday experiences, the general premise of satirical writing is fairly uniform — a commentary on a subject, often made by exaggerating and making fun of it. According to satire writer Alex Baia, the most important aspect of satirical writing is a strong point of view. Writers use extreme specifics to differentiate their writing while making clear their overall point.
Satire serves as a way to extend self-deprecating humor to our entire society. By making fun of ourselves and the situations we end up in, whether it’s a toxic relationship or the leadership of a bigoted president, satire helps us cope with the harsh realities of today’s world. With websites like The Onion and The Hard Times accumulating staggering social media presences, it seems that everyone is looking for a piece of comic relief these days.
Satire can also serve as a reminder that we’re not alone by speaking to shared experiences among certain groups. After finding out my roommate went through a relationship and breakup almost identical to mine, I started sending her headlines and memes that fit our situation so we could laugh together at our shared relief and horror of what we had gone through. Just last night, Reductress, a feminist satire website, reposted an article on their Instagram entitled “Man Who Brought Immeasurable Amounts of Pain To Your Life Wants To Be Friends Again.” I was both surprised and comforted to see a headline that encompassed exactly what I had planned on writing about. The article, written in the second person, places the reader directly into the situation, thus maximizing its relatability. The writing is concise, detailed, and full of quotes that sound all too realistic. The article made me laugh, but it also made me feel validated, realizing one of my most personal experiences was actually not as unique as I thought. Posted just 20 hours ago, the photo of the article’s headline already has nearly 45,000 likes and over 1,000 comments, serving as a reminder that maybe I’m not so alone after all.

Screenshot of the Reductress Instagram post as of 9/24/19

They Keep Saying Satire is Dead

I often consider myself to be a pro level Googler. If the information is out there on the interweb I can and will find it. For my repurposing assignment, I have chosen to turn an open letter from my English 225 class into a piece of satire. So, I took to my favorite search engine to explore the genre. I started out with something basic.

site:nytimes.com ~satire 2000..2014 gave me 70,000 results. None of them were useful.

site:newyorker.com ~satire 2000..2014 gave me 1,640 results. None of them were particularly useful.

I even tried to find academic articles about satire in the Michigan Library databases. Nothing was particularly useful.

Rather, I continued to see the phrase “satire is dead” scattered throughout my search results. No combination of searches would give me any insight as to the anatomy of writing a satirical piece. Desperate for the slightest bit of direction in constructing a satirical argument, I took a stab at emailing the editorial staff of The Onion (I was told that a quippy subject line might get me a response, I can only hope mine was quippy enough). While waiting for a response, I decided that watching Jon Stewart, South Park, and reading any pieces of satire would have to help me channel my sarcastic libido into something usable for my assignment.

This is how South Park gets away with all the crap they do. I do not own this image, it belongs to the creators of South Park.
This is how South Park gets away with all the crap they do. I wish I could be as crude as they are when writing my paper. I do not own this image, it belongs to the creators of South Park.

All that I have been able to learn about satire thus far is this: satirists are basically like Lindsay Lohan in that one good movie she was in, Mean Girls. They’re extremely popular, but nobody knows exactly why. The satirist elite have no problem sharing their work, but none of them want to devalue their form by telling people how they can achieve the same level of lovable hilarity.

Satire is not dead, but I do see why people may think that it is. Satirists are those pesky little arrogant-mean-spirited-self-centered-condescending-self-promoting-argumentative wankers that have mastered an art, but don’t want to show how they go about doing it.

On that note, I basically have two weeks to figure out how to write satire. My optimism is waning.

This image belongs to someecards.com

Weaponized Writing

I have a busy week ahead of me so I’m doing this blog post early (this is meant to be the one for Wednesday the 22; yes my schedule is that crazy). Also I saw something that inspired me. That something was this:

Now, some of you might wonder why museums are relevant to writing and might even (rightly) accuse me of trying to combine coursework for two classes to create less work. The least charitable among you might think “WTF, cartoon cats?” To this imaginary quarrelsome audience, I would respond that it is not about the “what” but the “how.” I’ve written at least forty pages on museums yet somehow in a five minute space of time, two cartoon cats have upstaged me. This is the power of satire. Saying things without saying them.  Subversion through imitation. Using that which is cute and soft to portray some hard and sharp insights. Professors often talk about how form should match content but in this case, by creating a juxtaposition between form and content, the content becomes more powerful in some ways. A kitten criticizing public institutions somehow exposes the ridiculousness of these institutions, which like to portray themselves as august and authoritative, yet the criticisms are not ridiculous. They are enough to make many museum professionals sweat, bluster or go silent.

This brings me to an aspect of writing which we touched on a bit with Orwell but never fully developed. Writing as a means of social change and satire as a means of social change. Orwell has been perfectly serious and for the most part, in our writing for this class, although humor has doubtlessly been employed, satire has been left in the dugout. Writing as social change brings about awareness and is best when it uses the kind of persuasion we find in other kinds of writing; appeals to reason as in Malcolm Gladwell’s work, and appeals to emotion like that of Thomas Paine (the guy who wrote “Common Sense”).  Satire in my mind can be potent as a tool for social change in that it makes you aware by exposing how unaware you were before. It takes societal notions like “museums house valuable objects”, which many buy into and flips them on their head, “museums make their objects valuable.”  I make it sound boring by talking about it this way. The key aspect to satire is what makes it not boring; it’s wit. The way it turns things on their heads. For example, these lines are some of the wittiest, though they are probably only funny to me as a Museum Studies Minor:

“Chances are the museum people who decide what gets to be put in a museum probably don’t have anything in common with you.”

“Inside the objects are usually lined up against blank walls; blank walls are good so that the visitors won’t have to deal with so much context or history .”

“Actually, at first I though that there must be some kind of law against having poor people on a museum’s Board of Trustees.  But then later, I found out that actually there isn’t any law like this. This is just the way they like to do it.”

“It’s like that because no matter how much museum people try to copy reality it’s never going to come out right but then all the museum visitors say this is the actual Pinky [an object on exhibition]. This is very educational.”

A hallmark of satire is using wit as a weapon. When I first read this phrase, most likely in a high school lit book, I didn’t question it. But now I have to wonder who this weapon is aimed at. In the case of this video, which is obviously scripted and perhaps based off of some academic paper, the weapon of wit seems to be aimed not only at museums but at the viewer who buys into them without thinking. People often write to persuade people of something, and this is persuasive, at least to me, but this showed me that people also write to challenge the reader, to challenge society. The relationship between reader and writer can intentionally not be a friendly, chummy one or an authoritative relationship. It can be deliberately advesarial.  instead of appealing to someone’s world view to persuade them (as is often what seems to be meant when we say we’re “writing for an audience”), satire like this video rocks people’s world view.

Here is a link to their website FAQ if you’re interested: http://www.pinkyshow.org/faqs